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Serge Ibaka's departure a heavy blow to Raptors' championship aspirations – Sportsnet.ca

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For now the details are few and the circumstances not completely understood, but on the same day the Toronto Raptors were able to retain their free-agent point guard, they lost their most viable big man.

The enthusiasm that greeted news Saturday morning that Fred VanVleet had re-signed with Toronto was tempered when Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers for a two-year deal worth a reported $19 million late on Saturday night.

The move — which was unexpected — leaves the Raptors without another member of their championship core, one of the most colourful players in franchise history, and for the moment without a viable centre under contract.

“We’ll be okay,” was Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s text message shortly after the deal was reported.

Ujiri and Raptors general manager Bobby Webster deserve more than the benefit of the doubt at this stage, given they have seven straight playoff appearances to their credit not to mention the 2019 title. But it’s hard to spin the notion of Ibaka leaving as anything other than a heavy blow to a team hoping to compete for championships.

For the moment Ibaka’s combination of floor-spreading shooting and defensive ability seems difficult to replace.

Given that the Raptors’ other incumbent centre, Marc Gasol, is a free agent garnering his share of interest elsewhere and the only other bigs on the roster are an under-sized Chris Boucher — who has never played steady NBA minutes — and second-year Dewan Hernandez, a long-term project at best, Ujiri’s definition of ‘okay’ might be relative.

What’s not hard to argue is that by the time Ibaka was ready to leave he was on his way to becoming a folk hero in Toronto.

The slick-shooting centre with the chiselled frame and cheekbones to match had morphed from distant and taciturn early in his tour with a pair of weak playoff performances to his name to loose and free and one of the Raptors’ most important playoff heroes. His last games for Toronto were some of his very best.

He played here parts of four seasons after arriving from the Orlando Magic at the trade deadline in 2017 and seemed to improve in subtle and not-so-subtle ways each year — no small feat for someone with that many professional miles on their tires.

Last year was his 11th season and might have been his best — he averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds a game on a per/36-minute basis, both career highs — and shot 39 per cent from three on nearly five attempts per game.

He was better as a starter — shooting 43.7 per cent from three in 27 games in that role — and was even better in the playoffs where he shot 57 per cent from the floor, 51.1 per cent from deep and was one of the Raptors’ few reliable options as Toronto’s offence ground to a halt in the second round against Boston.

But so complete was Ibaka’s transformation as a Raptor that it was his off-the-floor presence that so many fans were mourning when news broke that he was reuniting with Fun Guy Kawhi Leonard — ‘What it do baby’ — to take a run at another ring with the Los Angeles Clippers.

There was his must-see How Hungry Are You cooking shows where he served guests some truly disturbing dishes, including beef penis pizza, memorably, to Leonard. No hard feelings, apparently.

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There was How Bored Are You, when he lit up the dark days of quarantine for so many from his own locked-down life — albeit from a much nicer apartment than most. And there was Avec Classe — the YouTube series where the fashion-forward Ibaka invited teammates for a makeover, with occasionally hilarious results and viral arguments about scarves.

As a Raptor he became a person and player in full, it seemed.

“… He’s more confident,” Kyle Lowry observed when I interviewed him after he attended a documentary Ibaka produced about his improbable journey from the streets of Brazzaville, Congo, to the Raptors championship parade. “You win a championship and things like that happen. You’re able to go out into other avenues. I think winning a championship gave him a bigger stage to promote his continent, his people, and he’s doing that even more now.”

In that context a tour through Los Angeles will suit Ibaka well — he’s got a lot to offer on and off the floor. If he can help lead the Clippers to their first-ever title, his platform will only grow.

But the Raptors problem is what he leaves behind. If not Ibaka or Gasol — or even if Gasol returns, given how much the Spanish veteran struggled in 2019-20 — then who? Then what?

There are options available and the Raptors can offer the full mid-level ($9.3 million for one year or potentially $39 million over four) if they must.

Could Aron Baynes, the bruising Suns centre who has recently developed a passable three-point shot be enticed for one year of the mid-level ($9.3 million) — that might be optimistic. Former Raptor Bismack Biyombo would probably be cheaper and would fill a hole defensively even if the offensively challenged big man might create one on the other end. Hassan Whiteside can block shots and rebound with the best of them, but seems to create drama at every stop. He’s as big as big bodies get.

Perhaps the Raptors’ best options might be more small lineups, with either Pascal Siakam and/or OG Anunoby logging more minutes as the theoretical centre in five-out sets that are becoming more and more common. There were some promising signs of that during the playoffs.

The Raptors — Ujiri, Webster and head coach Nick Nurse — generally figure things out.

That’s the reassuring part. But for the moment losing Ibaka seems like the opposite of okay, and how he performed on the floor was only half of it.

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Maradona's No. 10 jersey should be retired by all clubs – Villas-Boas – ESPN

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Marseille manager Andre Villas-Boas has said FIFA should make all clubs retire the No. 10 jersey to honour Diego Maradona, who died on Wednesday from a heart attack.

Maradona was released from hospital two weeks ago following brain surgery but subsequently suffered a heart attack at his home. He was 60.

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“Maradona, yes it is tough news, I would like FIFA to retire the No. 10 shirt in all competitions, for all teams,” Villas-Boas said after Marseille’s 2-0 Champions League defeat by Porto.

“It would be the best homage we could do for him. He is an incredible loss for the world of football.”

Napoli, who Maradona played for between 1984 and 1991, retired the No. 10 shirt in 2000 in honour of him.

He scored 115 goals in 259 games and helped the Italian club clinch two Serie A titles, in 1987 and 1990, as well as their only European trophy, the UEFA Cup in 1989.

FIFA has previously blocked Maradona’s home country of Argentina from retiring the No. 10.

The country’s professional league announced that the Copa Liga professional will be renamed as the Diego Maradona Cup and Naples mayor Luigi De Magistris has called for Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo to be renamed in his honour.

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New Raptors centre Aron Baynes rejuvenated career with 3-point stroke – Sportsnet.ca

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Aron Baynes has played 469 games across his eight NBA seasons and a good number more over three years playing professionally in Europe before making the jump to North America. He won an NBA championship in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s suited up for the Australian national team – his beloved green and gold – nearly every summer he’s had a chance, counting three World Cups and two Olympics on his resume.

There were four NCAA tournament appearances in his four years at Washington State, and another 122 games played there.

It’s a lot of years and a lot of games. But what about the one he played on March 31, 2018 against the Raptors when he was a member of the Boston Celtics? Boston won 110-99.

Does he remember that one?

Turns out he does (after some prompting, but whatever.)

That night he made his first five field goals – three long twos and then consecutive three pointers – all by the midway point of the first quarter. It was notable because Baynes hasn’t been prone to scoring flurries in his career, but also because until that point he had taken only 19 threes in career, making just one – more than three years prior.

Needless to say, the Raptors weren’t exactly sprinting out to run him off the line.

“I remember definitely going out there,” he said on an introductory conference call Wednesday after he signed with the Raptors as a free agent on Sunday. “And you know, you’re going to remember a game when you go 2-of-2 the first time in your career. So yeah, definitely good memories. But yeah, I haven’t looked back since and still trying to get better.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to say it was the game – even the moment – that started him on a journey that led him to signing with Toronto on a two-year deal for $14.3 million (albeit with no guarantee on the second year) that will likely see him become the team’s starting centre in the wake of the departure of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.

The season following his breakout game against the Raptors, Baynes took 61 threes and made 21 while mostly coming off the bench for the Celtics. Last season — having moved on to the Phoenix Suns — he stepped out to the three-point line 169 times in 42 games, converting on 35 per cent, or right about the league average, including a magical night against Portland when he knocked down nine threes on 14 attempts on his way to a career-high 37 points.

Given the nature of the way the game has changed, being able to draw defences out to the three-point line has become a vital tool in a big man’s arsenal, and given the five-out, drive-and-kick attack favoured by the Raptors under Nick Nurse, it’s become essential for bigs that play for Toronto.

For Baynes, those two shots against the Raptors had been a long time coming, a part of his game he’d been working on since his rookie season with the Spurs, under the guidance of renowned shooting coach Chip Engelland, but it took years for him to be comfortable shooting threes in an NBA game.

With the Spurs, his role was fairly limited, so he wasn’t in a position to start letting it fly from deep. In his two years with the Detroit Pistons then-head coach Stan Van Gundy hadn’t fully embraced the ‘stretch-5’ concept, so it wasn’t really on the menu there.

But Baynes kept at it, putting his time in after regular practice honing a shot he rarely took but he believed could extend his career.

In Boston, both head coach Brad Stevens and president Danny Ainge would see him stretching out his range after practice and made a point of letting him know he had a green light.

“I’d had numerous discussions with both Brad and Danny and they kept telling me to shoot the ball,” Baynes recalled. “And you’re a little bit hesitant at first because it’s something different in the NBA. I’ve been doing it internationally for a while, but it’s a little bit different for the NBA game, and as soon as you see one go down though, then you don’t see a poor reaction from the coach or anyone else, everyone’s like, ‘come on, keep shooting that’ it doesn’t take long to buy into it and want to take as many as you can if they’re good shots.

“So yeah, that’s when I really started realizing that if I just slow down and don’t rush things and shoot within rhythm, it’s usually a pretty good shot.”

Prior to that night, Baynes’ game was very much about sticking to his knitting: bone-crunching screens, using his barrel chest to take up offensive players’ space and otherwise making trips into the paint an unfortunate experience for others, all while commanding the defence vocally from the back and cleaning up well around the basket on offence.

All those qualities are still very much part of the Baynes experience, but being able to spread the floor and be a credible above-the-line outlet or a pick-and-pop threat has given Baynes – who will turn 34 before the season starts in December – added momentum at a stage when a lot of careers are beginning to wind down.

While losing Gasol and Ibaka in a single weekend is nothing to be glossed over, between Baynes’ ability to keep opponents honest from deep and his reputation as one of the league’s better team defenders, the hope is he will be a more than adequate replacement. He’s eager to lend his pleasing Australian accent to the cause of directing traffic on defence.

“As much as the offence is fun, I always love playing defence,” said Baynes. “I think that is where you can really change a game and I always try and lock in on that first and foremost. The best way for me to do that is being vocal and talking to everyone. I would rather err on the side of talking too much than not talking enough on defence. I think with communication you can sort out a lot of mistakes that will happen because inevitably they are going to when you play against the best players in the world.

“I’m looking forward to going out there and playing within Nick’s system. I know it’s going to be a little bit different, we’ll give teams different looks, but that makes it even more entertaining for me. It’s always fun when you see a team come down and there’s a bit of confusion in their faces. You know you are doing something right and the game is hopefully going to swing a bit in your favour as soon as you see that.’

It’s a quality that should make him a good fit in Toronto and one the main reasons the Raptors turned to him almost instantly after it was clear that both Ibaka and Gasol were not going to return as they signed in Los Angeles with the Clippers and the Lakers, respectively.

Baynes was happy to get the call.

“Yeah, 48 hours is pretty late in this recent free agency,” said Baynes. “It was a long time. It was a very long 48 hours. But they say good things come to those who wait so I was looking forward to a few opportunities out there and this was definitely one of them. I knew there was always an option and I was just hoping for a good situation.”

His road to the Raptors started, it turns out, on a pair of made threes.

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‘He only gave us joy’: Argentinians pay tribute to Diego Maradona – Al Jazeera English

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Buenos Aires, Argentina — Amid boisterous chants to send off a football legend who had departed too soon, Wilson Cisnero leaned against a brightly painted brick building that had a simple, small sign he had pasted on it. “God is with God,” he wrote, punctuated with the number 10.

The 25-year-old had cycled two kilometres (1.2 miles) to the famed Buenos Aires neighbourhood of La Boca because, like many others, he did not know where else to go to when he heard that Diego Maradona had passed away.

Crowds gathered outside La Bombonera, the home of Boca Juniors, one of Argentina’s most celebrated football clubs, that counted Maradona as its star once.

“Argentina is Maradona,” said Cisnero, his devastation clear through his glassy gaze. “You look at all this disgrace with coronavirus and now this other disgrace,” he lamented. “Now soccer is left without its God.”

Wilson Cisnero stands in front of a sign that says ‘God is with God’ in memory of Diego Maradona in Argentina [Natalie Alcoba/Al Jazeera]

That same pain was written all over the faces of Argentinians on Wednesday, as the nation came to grips with his unexpected death. To the world, he was Maradona. To Argentina, he was “El Diego” – a kid who sprouted from the slums, dazzled on the pitch like no other, dominated the sport and delivered World Cup glory that has yet to be repeated in Argentina.

Maradona suffered a cardiac arrest at his home, north of the capital of Buenos Aires, on Wednesday.  He had recently undergone brain surgery, pushing concerns over his health into the news. He was 60 years old.

“It’s something you can’t describe,” said Rafael Bellido, 49, sitting on the steps of La Bombonera, next to his partner Marcela Reynoso, as they shared mate, a traditional Argentine infusion. “El Diego was the person who represented us the best,” he said. “When he was playing, and you were watching, and you wanted to curse, he would curse. He reflected us. In addition to all the things that he did on the pitch.”

“Now is the time when Argentine society needs to give back all the joy that he gave to us,” he added. “And how long he made us happy. A long time. Every time he touched the pitch. You can’t describe it.”

Marcela Reynoso and Rafael Bellido mourn Diego Maradona in Argentina [Natalie Alcoba/Al Jazeera]

As tributes rolled in from around the world, President Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning, cancelling all his engagements as the government prepared to host a wake at the presidential palace. The government is expecting a million people to pay their final respects. Government buildings will be lit up in the colours of the Argentinian flag in his honour.

In a statement, Fernandez said it was Argentinians’ good fortune to have been able to live through the era of Maradona, to have seen his greatness and enjoyed his affection.

“I doubt that we will ever see another player like Maradona in every way, not only because of his technical qualities, but also because of that courage, that strength, that grit, which he showed every time he put on the jersey he had to defend. An exceptional player who only gave us joy,” he said.

“Maradona was a genuine man, he defended what he believed in,” the president added. “He is a good example of what ordinary Argentines are, so visceral. Above all that, I always stressed that he was never a fraud – he said what he didn’t like.”

By mid-afternoon, hundreds of people had gathered at the foot of the Buenos Aires obelisk, singing Maradona’s praises as a giant banner displaying his face rippled in the wind. Outside La Bombonera, the crowds burst into intermittent song and dance.

“Diego isn’t dead, Diego isn’t dead, Diego lives in the village,” the crowd would chant. Everyone had their own story, their own reason for being there and what he meant to them. His incredible highs and the lows that he also lived through, were theirs, too.

“There will always be critics,” said Reynoso. “The important thing is that he found his own happiness.”

Diego Covelo marks a sign in memory of Diego Maradona in Argentina [Natalie Alcoba/Al Jazeera]

Diego Covelo, who counts himself as a member of the Maradoniana Church, founded by fans in 1988, pasted a poster of Maradona in his Boca Juniors jersey on the stadium’s exterior. He and a few friends had been holding vigil outside the clinic during the football legend’s recent admission to hospital.

“If we were there during the good times, of course we’ve got to be there during the bad times,” said Covelo, 35.

Josue Mustafa, 24, saw children playing football on his way to La Boca and thought to himself: “”That is Maradona’s legacy.

That’s going to stay with everyone – in the young ones, and in people who are older.”

Blanca Salursi, standing under a giant mural of El Diego in La Boca, remembered seeing him play as a youngster in one of Buenos Aires’ shanty towns

“I also came from the slums, you come up from the bottom,” said the 60-year-old. And with a twinkle in her teary eyes as she turned to leave, she said: “Don’t ever forget that he was the best there was.”

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